The decline in the Arkansas Delta began in earnest in the ’90s, with homegrown manufacturing’s post-NAFTA decline, and bottomed out with the nearly 600 jobs lost when the Sanyo plant closed in 2007 after three decades. The Great Recession only compounded the region’s misery, and although unemployment in this county has fallen to 4.4 percent, it still lags behind the rest of the state by nearly a point. Nearly a third of folks in St. Francis County live in poverty today. “We really don’t have a lot of industry. If you aren’t willing to work at McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s or the hospital, we’re limited,” says Ardelia Echols, a Forrest City native and city councilor.
That may now be changing. This spring, a major Chinese textile company announced a plan to convert the former television and microwave factory into a massive yarn mill, with plans to hire as many as 800 employees and consume 200,000 tons of cotton annually — enough to swallow up the state’s entire crop. The Shandong Ruyi Technology Group has held job fairs for what will be its first American outpost, with lines that “were more than they can handle,” Echols says. “Everyone is really excited.”
The $410 million investment is one of a handful of foreign cash influxes that have made Arkansas the top state for foreign direct investment by employment growth, according to the nonprofit Organization for International Investment. More than 60 percent of that has come in the manufacturing sector, after many economists had effectively nailed the coffin on the industry.
Arkansas is proactively courting these investments. In addition to the Shanghai office it’s had for a decade, the state has added offices in Berlin and Tokyo since Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson took over in 2015. In that same time period, Hutchinson has led three trade trips to China. “The message we got from China is that relationships matter,” says Mike Preston, the Hutchinson-appointed executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.